Out of Power, Trump Still Exerts It
Since he left office, Democrats and a smaller number of Republicans have vowed to ensure that former President Donald J. Trump never recaptures the White House, where he would regain enormous power over the nation and around the globe.
Yet, in his insistence on forging ahead with a campaign while facing multiple criminal investigations, his dismissiveness toward supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression and his continued provocations on social media and in campaign speeches, Mr. Trump has shown that he does not need control over the levers of government to have an effect on the country — and, in the minds of many, to do damage.
To those who believed that the secret to banishing Mr. Trump was to deprive him of attention — that ignoring him would make him go away — he has shown that to be wishful thinking.
To fully understand that, one need look no further than the events of Saturday. The day began with a 7:26 a.m. post by Mr. Trump on his social media site, Truth Social, declaring that he would be arrested on Tuesday, even though the timing remains uncertain, and calling on people to “protest” and “take our nation back.”
The effect was like that of a starter’s gun: It prompted Republican leaders to rush to Mr. Trump’s side and to attack the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, a Democrat, who has indicated he is likely to bring charges against Mr. Trump in connection with 2016 hush money payments to a porn star who said she’d had an affair with him.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Trump ally, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Bragg’s investigation was an “abuse of power” and that he would direct congressional committees to investigate whether any federal money was involved — a thinly veiled threat at a key moment before Mr. Bragg makes his plans clear.
A crush of other Republicans denounced the expected charges as politically motivated. They included one declared presidential candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, and one potential candidate who has not yet formally entered the primary field, former Vice President Mike Pence.
Who’s Running for President in 2024?
The race begins. Four years after a historically large number of candidates ran for president, the field for the 2024 campaign is starting out small and is likely to be headlined by the same two men who ran last time: President Biden and Donald Trump. Here’s who has entered the race so far, and who else might run:
Donald Trump. The former president is running to retake the office he lost in 2020. Though somewhat diminished in influence within the Republican Party — and facing several legal investigations — he retains a large and committed base of supporters, and he could be aided in the primary by multiple challengers splitting a limited anti-Trump vote.
Nikki Haley. The former governor of South Carolina and U.N. ambassador under Trump has presented herself as a member of “a new generation of leadership” and emphasized her life experience as a daughter of Indian immigrants. She was long seen as a rising G.O.P. star but her allure in the party has declined amid her on-again, off-again embrace of Trump.
Vivek Ramaswamy. The multimillionaire entrepreneur and author describes himself as “anti-woke” and is known in right-wing circles for opposing corporate efforts to advance political, social and environmental causes. He has never held elected office and does not have the name recognition of most other G.O.P. contenders.
President Biden. While Biden has not formally declared his candidacy for a second term, and there has been much hand-wringing among Democrats over whether he should seek re-election given his age, he is widely expected to run. If he does, Biden’s strategy is to frame the race as a contest between a seasoned leader and a conspiracy-minded opposition.
Marianne Williamson. The self-help author and former spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey is the first Democrat to formally enter the race. Kicking off her second presidential campaign, Williamson called Biden a “weak choice” and said the party shouldn’t fear a primary. Few in Democratic politics are taking her entry into the race seriously.
Others who are likely to run. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire are seen as weighing Republican bids for the White House.
Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, who has endorsed Mr. Trump in the 2024 campaign, tweeted that a “politically motivated prosecution makes the argument for Trump stronger.” And both he and Representative Elise Stefanik, a staunch Trump backer from New York, accused Mr. Bragg and his fellow Democrats of trying to turn America into a “third-world country.”
The rallying around Mr. Trump evoked the days after the Nov. 3, 2020, election, when his two eldest sons pressured many leading Republicans — who had been waiting for the president to concede defeat — to instead fight on his behalf.
This time, however, as when F.B.I. agents executed a search warrant at Mr. Trump’s club and home, Mar-a-Lago, in August, there was no need for anyone to sound the alarm. Mr. Trump’s social media post did that on its own.
It was lost on no one that the investigations Mr. Trump is facing include a Justice Department probe of his efforts to stay in power in the lead-up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a mob of his supporters, several of whom have told prosecutors that they felt summoned to Washington by a tweet from Mr. Trump the previous month.
The authorities in New York City were already preparing for possible unrest in response to an indictment before Mr. Trump’s Saturday morning call to action. And while some Republicans did not echo his call for protests while defending him, relatively few publicly objected to them. Mr. McCarthy on Sunday seemed to split the difference, saying he did not believe people should protest an indictment and did not think Mr. Trump really believed they should, either, according to NBC News.
“There is a lot of power in the presidency, which is dangerous in the hands of a self-interested demagogue,” said David Axelrod, a veteran Democratic strategist and former adviser to President Obama. “But as we’ve seen, there are also some institutional constraints. Without those, there are no guardrails around Trump. And the more embattled he feels, the more inclined he’ll be to inflame mob action.”
Already, Mr. Trump’s hold on the party has far outlasted his time in office. While the 2022 midterms revealed his weaknesses in picking candidates who could win a general election and his failure to focus on issues appealing to a broader group of voters, he nonetheless has continued to bend the G.O.P. to his will.
In the midterm primaries, embracing his lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him became a litmus test for candidates seeking his backing. Many of them echoed, and amplified, his false claims, eating away at voters’ trust in the electoral process.
Mr. Trump has also wielded outsize influence on several major issues in the Republican primary.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Mr. Trump initially described it as a “smart” attempt to gain control over another country’s land. He hasn’t repeated that praise, but he has spoken out against treating defending Ukraine as a key national priority.
His position resonates with much of the Republican voting base. But Mr. Trump, as a former president and as the leader in Republican primary polls, has helped set the tone for the party. And that has worried international officials, who have predicted that Mr. Trump’s winning the 2024 presidential nomination could fracture the bipartisan coalition in Washington behind aiding Ukraine.
“I do hope, I would say not only from a European perspective but from a global perspective, that Republicans will nominate a candidate that is much more attached to American global leadership than Trump and Trumpists,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former secretary general of NATO, told Alexander Burns of Politico last week, predicting a “geopolitical catastrophe.”
Other questions remain for what a Trump indictment might mean if Mr. Trump, who has said he would not quit the race if charged, indeed remains a candidate in 2024, let alone recaptures the nomination.
Not being the incumbent means Mr. Trump lacks the ultimate platform from which to summon his followers, as well as the trappings of power that so appealed to some of those who most vocally support him.
But Mr. Trump’s strength as president never derived entirely from the office itself. He had spent decades building a fan base across the country and portraying himself as synonymous with success in business, though that image was as much artifice as fact.
For years, Mr. Trump moved in some of New York’s power circles even as other elites shunned him. He has decades-long ties, for example, to New York law enforcement officials whose agencies would play a role in providing security during an eventual indictment, arrest or arraignment.
Dennis Quirk, the head of the court officers association, once advised Mr. Trump on construction of the Wollman Rink, the ice skating rink in Central Park whose renovation was crucial to Mr. Trump’s selling of himself as an innovator.
Mr. Trump was endorsed by the nation’s largest police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, in 2020. And his long-serving personal aide, Keith Schiller, was a New York City police detective.
Among those assailing the Manhattan district attorney on Saturday was Bernard B. Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, who took part in efforts to keep Mr. Trump in power after the 2020 election and has known him since Mr. Trump was mainly a New York real estate developer.
“At some point, local, state, and federal law enforcement officers need to stand up and walk out, if they’re forced to engage in illegal political persecutions!” Mr. Kerik wrote on Twitter. “You cannot break the law to enforce it, and that is exactly what @ManhattanDA is doing.”